The Rhythm Section, a thriller about revenge and geopolitics, wastes no time establishing a tone of humorless cheese. Armed with a silenced pistol, Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively) sneaks up a stairway in Morocco, past an iguana, and up behind an old man in a wheelchair. She appears to be some kind of rugged yet stylish assassin, with short, choppy dark hair. But before she can pull the trigger, the screenplay interrupts. Jump to eight months earlier. Stephanie is a stringy blonde with dark bags under her eyes, an addict working the world’s oldest profession at below-wholesale prices in London. At this point, we are presumably supposed to be thinking, “Oh wow, how did she get from here to there?” Not that this character is much of mystery; her psychology is for the most part defined by her changing hairstyles, as well as Lively’s steady attempt at a tight English accent. We learn that she was once a movie’s idea of middle class, until her parents and siblings died in a plane crash. Occasionally, The Rhythm Section offers us glimpses of these happier times in flashbacks that are filmed with hazy lens diffusion to distinguish them from the film’s gloomy palette: the Patricks live in their showroom kitchen and living room in Stephanie’s memory, everyone wearing sweaters and giggling.
How heroin and sex work entered the picture is anyone’s guess. But Stephanie’s path to something like badassery begins with Keith Proctor (Raza Jaffery), a journalist with shadowy connections who first approaches her by posing as a client. Proctor claims to have proof that the plane crash that killed Stephanie’s family was not only a terrorist bombing, but that it was also a cover up, and now one of the men responsible is roaming free in London. (“Wait why is he telling her all this?”, you might be asking, yeah, you never really know.) After an initial, abortive attempt at vengeance that ends with disastrous consequences, she decided to enter this dark world herself.
Adapted from a novel by Mark Burnell (who also wrote the screenplay), The Rhythm Section arrives under the endorsement of producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, who most notably have run the James Bond franchise since GoldenEye. While the staples of that series can be found throughout The Rhythm Section, it ultimately offers none of the fun and only a few of the basic thrills of Bond. Following Proctor’s clues, Stephanie quickly tracks down “B” (Jude Law), a disgruntled ex-spy who lives in a secluded cottage in Scotland. He also has a personal connection to the bombing, and quickly becomes Stephanie’s tough-love life coach in matters of skullduggery and murder. An always welcome presence, Law is the only cast member in The Rhythm Section to give the impression that he had any fun making the movie, playing B as a survivalist mope with impossible reflexes. Nonetheless, he is consistently dressed and posed as if he was in some type of watch commercial.
B’s idea is for Stephanie to adopt the identity of Petra Reuter, a notorious German contract killer who died some years ago. Fortunately for her, everyone who knows what Petra looked like is also dead, and given her line of work, it’s easy to dismiss reports of her demise as having been wildly exaggerated. Thus, having been trained by B to look and act like a cold-blooded killer, she is sent off to find an information broker named Serra (Sterling K. Brown), who might unwittingly help her find the terrorist mastermind known as “U17.” How all of this works is a little fuzzy, or just flat out convoluted, with much more attention seemingly paid to the cut of Stephanie/Petra’s shirts. The truth is that this movie — with the deadly woman who is plucked from the gutter and empowered by putting on wigs and pretending to be manipulated by man — has been made many times before, and usually by Luc Besson. But The Rhythm Section would balk at being mistaken for that kind of creepoid, trashy male-gazness, despite all the commonalities: the hunky male mentor, the overcomplicated lingerie, the awkwardly un-erotic love scene. The film is directed by Reed Morano, who has helmed a couple of indie features, but is better know for her work in TV; she won an Emmy for directorial work on the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Morano began her career as a cinematographer, and continued working as one until recently. Though she has previously lensed her own films, she has enlisted the services of the great Sean Bobbitt, the longtime director of photography of Steve McQueen. Unfortunately, the cinematographic brain trust’s visual style doesn’t bring a lot to the table. Shot after shot is seemingly defined by barrel distortions or occasionally streaky lens flares, with conversational scenes filled with such random coverage that when they’re finally clunkily edited together it’s almost jarring. A couple of crucial sequences also employ the trick of cutting one scene with flash-forwards of a scene that’s supposed to happen later — a collage effect seen mostly in ’60s movies that can work in some cases, but more often feels like an editor’s attempt to making something more tense or eccentric out of undramatic footage. The film does actually get one double-espresso shot of energy halfway through the runtime, when a hit goes bad and Stephanie finds herself in a chaotic car chase in Tangier. Morano designs the sequence as though it were a single shot taken from the passenger seat of Stephanie’s car, as it careens haphazardly through crowded streets and strikes off enemy vehicles. For that one brief moment, The Rhythm Section actually finds its rhythm and illustrates the harrowing, life-or-death intensity of exacting bloody revenge whilst being almost entirely inexperienced.
As big and possibly gimmicky as that setpiece can be, it’s approach in some ways extends to the film’s overreaching soundtrack, which begins its very on-the-nose deployment of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for The Man” and concludes with a synth-heavy Sleigh Bells cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”, the folk song previously recorded by the likes of Lead Belly and Nirvana. The latter track accompanies shots of Stephanie strutting toward the camera, having apparently shed any trace of vulnerability — which feels like a closing admission on Morano’s part that, even in this day and age, no one seems to have figured out how to make a movie about female assassins or spies that doesn’t feel like some kind of fetish and fashion item. Burnell has already written several more novels featuring the Stephanie Patrick character, and the ending implies that Broccoli and Wilson are hoping to produce sequels, if anyone actually cares. Tackling shopworn genre material, The Rhythm Section finds a way to remove most of the substance and inventiveness that comes with that material and delivers broad, underdeveloped storytelling.